I don’t give a tinker’s damn

An actual tinker. Photo credit: Ignacy Krieger (1817-1889)

Think with me back to third grade. I’m sitting in the fourth desk in the first row by the blackboard in Mrs. Hurst’s class at Rosa A. Lott Elementary. That’s the year we started learning grammar. Mrs. Hurst taught us about synonyms and antonyms, metaphor and simile, and my favorite, the homonym.

As we all know, homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings. Think “Polish” and “polish,” which I mention because of an embarrassing exchange at the car wash when I asked what made Polish wax different from American wax. There is no difference, the attendant informed me, because it is polish wax, used to polish the car and make it shiny. But I digress …

Now this linguistic quirk opens up a whole world of possibility for word play — and for confusion. Since I’ve been on this month-long examination of the idiom, I’ve run across two that are commonly misunderstood because of our friend the homonym. Here they are:

I don’t give a tinker’s damn. A tinker, in case you don’t know and because I really didn’t until I looked it up, is someone who repairs pots, pans, and utensils made from tin. Despite the fact that they were known to cuss because of the sometimes tedious nature of the profession, the original phrase was not “tinker’s damn” but rather “tinker’s dam.” The dam is a little piece of clay or mud used to patch the outside of the vessel being repaired. The tinker would then pour the solder into the hole from the inside. When the solder cooled and the hole or break was repaired, the tinker would then brush away the dam and file down the rough edges. The dam, having served its purpose, was now useless. “I don’t give a tinker’s worthless gob of goo” is the general gist.

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. According to some, “creek” should actually be “Creek” as in the Creek Indians. If you take out your blue Alabama history book which we all got in fourth grade, you’ll read about how in 1813 a band of Creek Indians, who had grown extremely weary of white settlers and were resistant to assimilation into white culture, split off from the Creek Nation. This faction was called the “Red Sticks.” Word of this uprising reached government officials who ambushed the Creek at the Battle of Burnt Corn, sending them scattering into the woods. Now they were at war not only with the other Creek Indians but with the U.S, which is why they set upon Fort Mims, which is right here in Alabama, just north of Mobile. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians were killed in what can only be described as a massacre. As one might imagine, the slaughter of men, women, and children sent a wave of fear throughout the surrounding settlements that rippled through the entire southeast. And that is why this idiom is said to have little to do with flooding creeks and everything to do with warring Creeks.